Even the air felt heavy as Tom and Maureen Santacroce waited for the judge that Monday morning. Tom sat by his attorney and Maureen by hers. They were about to dissolve 34 years of marriage.
The only problem was that neither really wanted a divorce.
Tom had initiated the proceedings, but in his heart he knew he didn’t want to end their marriage. It was his attorney’s idea. “The only way that you can protect your assets is to file for divorce,” he had said.
A scene from the previous night kept replaying in Maureen’s mind. In a last-ditch effort to save their marriage before appearing in divorce court, she and Tom had attended a Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway. “We were really happy,” Maureen says. “Everything had worked out. As we left the conference we really thought everything was wonderful.”
But that was before the argument—before Maureen allowed rash words to spill from her mouth.
“I was just really nasty,” Maureen says. “I was talking about the past … with viciousness and words that were hurtful and painful. And I brought up things that were supposedly already settled.”
Tom’s countenance changed with each verbal dart. He demanded that Maureen answer a question about the past. She refused. He stormed out of the apartment and slammed the door behind him.
Maureen walked to the door and turned the dead-bolt lock. She peeked out the front window and saw the reflection of headlights on the pavement below. She refused to allow herself to cry. “The only thing crying gave me was a headache,” she says, “So why add that to a heartache.”
Tom returned to his home thinking about the argument and his marriage. Maureen’s phone rang about midnight. It was Tom. “I’m going through with the divorce,” he said.
“Fine,” Maureen answered.
Tom stayed up most of the night praying. He was confused and hurt and asked God to help him make the right decision about his marriage.
So there they sat—two people who still loved one another despite their disagreements. Two people who had vowed 34 years earlier to love one another until death parted them.
The judge walked out of his chambers and sat on his bench. He turned to Tom. “Okay, what do you want to do?”
With a sense of peace and God’s leading, Tom replied, “I don’t want a divorce.”
The judge then turned to Maureen, “What are you going to do?”
“I didn’t file for divorce,” she said.
“Would the two of you get out of my courtroom? And don’t let me ever see you two back here again.”
Working on their hearts
Although still legally married, Tom and Maureen were light years apart. How could their marriage be saved?
As Maureen returned to her apartment, she recalled the hope she had felt just the day before, when she and Tom were at the Weekend to Remember. “[Until then] we always thought everybody had perfect marriages,” Maureen says, “and if someone didn’t have a perfect marriage you bail out.”
Maureen was surprised as the speakers opened up their lives to the attendees—that they transparently shared their personal problems. She and Tom recognized that they had struggled for years with their desire to control their lives and circumstances, and they discovered that only God is in control.
“And that lifted the biggest burden off of Tom’s shoulders that he had ever had,” Maureen says. “He lost years of happiness because of control, because of worry about things that never happened.”
During the weekend, Doug Mary, a representative from FamilyLife, met the Santacroces. When he first saw Tom and Maureen, they looked like two empty shells. “They had a gaunt look on their faces. Totally borderline,” Doug says. “I’ve never seen anything like that. It really caught my eye.”
When Doug asked Tom and Maureen, “Can I pray for you guys?” they agreed. What God did over the course of that weekend to answer those prayers was incredible. Initially Tom and Maureen sat opposite of one another when they worked on their projects. But by Sunday afternoon they were sitting side by side, laughing while they worked together. “They had come so far in three days,” Doug says. “It was amazing to see what took place. You could tell they had worked on stuff and were enjoying one another’s company.”
Hope into utter hopelessness
Knowing their story, Doug advised the Santacroces, “You are going to need someone [after the getaway] to help you piece this thing back together.” Several days later, still living apart after leaving the divorce court, they received an email from Doug, who recommended a Christian counselor who lived in their area: pastor Jim Solomon.
Jim says he’ll never forget the first time he met the Santacroces. They came into his office one at a time—Tom entered first. Jim’s chair was in front of his desk and directly across from two chairs. Tom, who was casually dressed, sat in one of those chairs. “His eyes had an expression of sadness—almost … defeated,” Jim says, “and yet his body language seemed to be saying I’m here. I’ve been beaten up so much I don’t know if I can take it anymore.”
When Maureen entered Jim’s office, she appeared professional—a no-nonsense woman. “She did not establish eye contact very well,” Jim says, “which told me she was half there and half absent when it came to her desire to connect.” She picked up her chair and moved it to the other side of the room.
Tom and Maureen appeared to be two people who were very separate from each other. “Their body language screamed that they did not even want to touch each other,” Jim says, “that they did not want to deal with each other, and certainly did not like each other.”
Jim knew that the Lord could bring hope into what the world would call utter hopelessness. “I had seen Him work miracles, especially in marriages and even in whole families. I knew the truth of Matthew 19:26, that with God all things are possible. I just felt like these were two people the Lord was sending me.”
Jim knew something else—that he and his own wife have something rare in today’s world. “Our marriage is not perfect,” he says, “but it is centered on the One who is. And that’s what gave me the confidence to really be able to face Tom and Maureen with a countenance of hope, and strength, and joy. … I knew that only the Lord can help two people who otherwise are helpless. I knew that His principles, and His Word, and the help of His Spirit could make two people who otherwise could be like two ships passing in the night become one in spirit and with each other.”
A turning point
During one of Tom and Maureen’s first counseling sessions with Jim, Maureen finally grasped that Tom wasn’t the only problem, that she was part of the problem, too. “She had a difficult time with this,” Jim says, “because she had been meeting with a counselor who had been telling her just the opposite for years—that if he [Tom] didn’t shape up, she should be out of there. And that she needs to just do what makes her happy.”
Jim had a different perspective of marriage—that God intends marriage more for holiness than happiness. When Maureen heard she would have to learn from the Lord how to love Tom when he wasn’t yet lovable, she said, “I can’t take this.” She walked out of Jim’s office, slammed the door, and left the building.
“Do you think she’ll come back?” Jim asked Tom.
“Knowing my wife, and we’ve been married for a long time, she won’t come back into this counseling.”
Jim suggested they pray, and Tom agreed. Jim began praying: “Lord, You can do anything, please bring Maureen back. Stop her in her tracks. Help her realize that when she ran out of this office, she was running from You. Help her see that You want her to run to You because You love her and You have something good in store for her and this is not the time to quit. That if she turns back to You, You will deliver her and bring new hope to her and even bless her.”
While they prayed, Maureen sat in her car. She recalls saying, “Dear God, what in the hell am I doing here?” She continued her prayer, “God, I am in hell. I need my husband. I need hope. I need prayer.”
She got out of the car and walked back into the church.
Tom and Jim sat in silence. “It seemed like forever,” Jim says. “But it was probably only 10 minutes.”
There was a knock on the door.
“Come in,” Jim said, hoping it was Maureen.
Maureen entered, walked over to Tom, kissed him on the forehead and asked for his forgiveness. “Please forgive me for walking out,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
Something happened in the Santacaroces’ marriage that day—they were honest with one another, and they placed their marriage in Jesus’ hands. “It was almost as if whatever was keeping Maureen from turning to Christ and His will for her marriage was dismissed,” Jim recalls.
Tom and Maureen continued to see Jim for counseling for three or four months.
“The type of counseling that I believe in,” Jim says, “is the type of counseling that helps people become less dependent on me and more dependent on Christ. My role is to really help them grow in Him and in each other—to not depend on me, but to depend on Him.”
“He taught us a lot about God,” Tom says of Jim, “and about love and about Who is first in life.”
“He referred to the Bible,” Maureen says. “The moment we laid eyes on him you could see God in his eyes. … My husband has every word that Jim ever counseled us on his heart.”
A source of hope
When asked to describe her marriage today, Maureen says just one word: “Superb.”
“Now we have been married 40 years,” Tom says, “and the last six years have been the best years of our life.”
Wanting their marriage to remain strong, Tom and Maureen tune up their relationship every year through a Weekend to Remember. They are also passionate about telling others about the marriage getaway. Many couples identify with the Santacroces when they share the trials and triumphs they’ve had in their marriage. “Even now there’s a couple who were going to get divorced,” Jim says, “And because of Tom and Maureen they are going to the Weekend to Remember. I really see God using them. They are a source of hope in the midst of hopelessness and light in the darkness.”
Jim Solomon is now the Santacroces’ pastor. He has seen the dramatic change in their marriage over the past six years. So much so that he hardly knows what happened to the couple that first walked into his office. “They’ve died. They are gone.”
“Tom and Maureen Santacroce today are so one,” Jim says. He sees how they hold hands and show affection to one another. “Even more than that,” Jim says, “They are one with each other in spirit before the Lord. And you look at them and you can’t help but think, Wow! That’s one couple that really has it together.”
Editor’s Note: Tom and Maureen Santacroce have both passed away. Their story continues to show others the beauty of a marriage centered in Christ.